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84th TX Lege

Tense Debate as House Shifts HIV Funding to Abstinence

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*Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional comment from Reps. Spitzer and Dutton. 

Seven hours into Tuesday’s debate on the House’s $210 billion two-year budget, things got first heated and then uncomfortable as state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, successfully pushed an amendment to move $3 million from HIV and STD prevention programs to pay for abstinence education.

A line of opponents gathered behind the podium as Spitzer laid out his amendment and proceeded to grill, quiz and challenge the lawmaker on his motives.

“Is it not significant that Texas has the third-highest number of HIV cases in the country?” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked. “Does it bother you to know there are people walking around with HIV, undiagnosed?”

Turner and Spitzer also had an exchange over how Spitzer had arrived at his price tag. “If we gave you a billion dollars for abstinence, would that be enough?” Turner asked. “Or would you need two?”

“My goal is for everyone to be abstinent until they are married,” Spitzer replied.

As Sylvester Turner ran out of time, Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, took to the podium and came to Spitzer’s defense, saying, “I don’t think we can have enough money for abstinence training.”

Spitzer, a doctor, then addressed questions brought by Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, who asked whether his position was representative of the medical community.

“You feel as a medical doctor that the position you are taking, not just from a fiscal standpoint, is prudent for the medical community?” Nevarez asked.

“I do,” Spitzer responded.

Texas allows school districts to decide whether and how to approach sex education, as long as they teach more about abstinence than any other preventive method, like condoms and birth control. But a number of representatives questioned the effectiveness of this program.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, pointed out that the state currently has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, and the single-highest rate of repeat teen pregnancy.

“It may not be working well,” said Spitzer, in reference to the current abstinence education program. “But abstinence education is HIV prevention. They are essentially the same thing.”

State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, took to the podium and asked Spitzer, “Were you taught abstinence education? Did it work?”

Spitzer replied that he was a virgin when he married at age 29. “I’ve only had sex with one woman in my life, and that’s my wife,” Spitzer said.

Dutton continued. “And since you brought it up, is that the first woman you asked?”

“I’m not sure that’s an appropriate question,” Spitzer responded.

The House was called to order, and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, took the microphone. “Earlier you stated that you could not get STDs without having sex,” she said.

“It depends on what your definition of sex is,” said Spitzer. “I can go through of all of this if you want to.”

“If you still think you can’t get an STD without having sex, then maybe we need to educate you,” Collier added.

Spitzer’s amendment ultimately passed 97 to 47.

After their exchange, neither Dutton or Spitzer laid down the gloves.

Spitzer said he knew the topics were “lightning rods,” and expected the debate to be contentious. But he thought Dutton’s line of questioning was inappropriate.

“They wanted to catch me off guard, paint me into a corner and catch me being a hypocrite,” Spitzer said. “But if people ask questions, I answer questions.”

“This is my first year here, and I’m not sure what is normal,” he added. “But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t usually devolve into discussion of a person’s sexual history.”

But Dutton said Spitzer opened the door by highlighting his own belief in abstinence.

“For him to use himself as an example to me was inappropriate,” said Dutton. “My questions were not inappropriate.”

“When he injected that abstinence had worked for him, and that he had his first sexual encounter when he was 29, I thought it was appropriate to ask,” he added. “Was that the result of abstinence, or was it that no one said yes?”

“When people sing from the hymn book of abstinence, they want people to do what he did,” Dutton added. “It might not be realistic, and we can’t put our heads in the sand and believe that.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/03/31/abstinence-funding-devolves-uncomfortable-debate/.

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84th TX Lege

Texas vs. Supreme Court

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A Texas bill to defy the Supreme Court‘s ruling on marriage died in the house last week but anti-gay politicians could find a sneaky way to revive it. Meanwhile the Attorney General of Texas refused to say if he will obey the Supreme Court’s ruling in June.

For the American Foundation for Equal Rights, I’m Matt Baume, and welcome to Marriage News Watch for May 18, 2015.

Legislators in Texas nearly passed a bill that will force the state to defy the Supreme Court last week but the deadline passed before they could hold a vote which means the bills off the table … for now. If it passed it would have withheld funding from government offices that obeyed a pro-equality ruling from the Supreme Court. That could never have withstood a lawsuit.

States simply don’t get to decide which Supreme Court rulings they want to follow. What’s scary is that an obviously unconstitutional bill even made it this far and may still come back. Bill sponsor Cecil Bell says that he might find a way to attach it to some other bill that’s still life so we’re not out of the woods yet.

And there’s another dangerous bill that did pass but it’s getting less attention. That’s SB 2065 which contains a hidden “Trojan horse” for discrimination. Supporters claim that the bill lets members of the clergy refused to conduct marriages that violate their conscience but if that were true there would be no need for the bill. Religious officials already have the freedom to refuse certain marriages.

What the bill actually does is extend that exemption to public officials with certain religious affiliations. So for example if the city hired a minister as Justice of the Peace then even though he’s serving in a government role he’d still be allowed to let his religious rules override the rules at his job. Couples could be turned away from government offices with no recourse.

The bill passed the Senate last week but missed its chance for a vote in the House but like the other bill it could always come back as an amendment. There are nearly two dozen anti-gay bills working their way through the Texas Legislature. Many like Cecil Bell attempt to defy the Supreme Court are clearly illegal, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says he’ll defend them any way. What’s more, Paxton refused to say whether he would obey Supreme Court orders to allow marriage equality in the state that could be setting up a showdown between the Supreme Court’s orders and the State of Texas’ refusal and it’s hard to say who would win.

Just kidding, the Supreme Court would win … eventually, but the last time there was a showdown like this it took some unpleasant work to sort it all out out.

Those are the headlines. Subscribe here on YouTube to stay up to date on all these marriage stories. For the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Matt Baume, thanks for watching and we’ll see you next week.

Source: YouTube: Texas vs. Supreme Court: May 18 MNW

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84th TX Lege

House Republicans Reaffirm Support of Gay Marriage Ban

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*Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.  

House Republicans want Texans to know they still oppose same-sex marriage – even if foot-dragging Democrats thwarted a debate on the polarizing subject Thursday night.

The House Republican Caucus on Friday released a letter reaffirming its support of the state’s long-standing ban on gay marriage, calling marriage between a man and woman a “principle that is so dearly held by Texans far and wide.”

“This letter provides legislative support and a legal foundation for the Texas constitutional provision,” Kelly Carnal, executive director of the caucus, said in a statement.

[pdf-embedder url=”http://www.therepubliq.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/05.15.15_House_Republican_Letter.pdf”]
The letter was signed by 93 of the 98 House Republicans. Those who did not sign were: Sarah Davis of West University Place, Jason Villalba of Dallas, Matt Schaefer of Tyler, Larry Gonzales of Round Rock and Speaker Joe Straus.

As speaker, Straus doesn’t typically sign any such letters. Schaefer declined to sign the letter out of disappointment and frustration after the House failed to move a proposal aiming to protect the state’s marriage laws.

“I wanted action, not just words in the journal,” he said. “We need a loud clear message to ring in the ears of the Supreme Court that people believe in marriage, as God instituted it, around the country. But unfortunately, the headline will be, the Texas House failed to act.”

At midnight on Friday – the deadline for passing bills originating in the House – time ran out on House Bill 4105, which would have forbidden state or local governments from using public funds to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Rep. Cecil Bell’s legislation was meant to pre-empt a potential U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling paving the way for same-sex marriage nationwide.

Gay rights groups and legal scholars have criticized the bill as unconstitutional and outlandish.

Enough Republicans had signed on as co-sponsors to guarantee the bill’s passage had it reached the floor, and Democrats spent Thursday prolonging debate in an attempt to run down the clock and prevent Bell’s legislation from being heard — a practice called “chubbing.” They were ultimately successful.

But Schaefer said Republicans shared responsibility for the bill’s demise, because they placed it too low on the calendar.

“It should have been a priority and it wasn’t,” he said. “If issues we care about as conservatives are not heard in a chamber dominated by Republicans, you have nothing but Republicans to blame.”

Bell said he might not be done pushing his proposal this session, because he could still attach language as an amendment to a related Senate bill.

Bobby Blanchard and Eva Hershaw contributed to this report.

[gdlr_icon type=”icon-camera-retro” size=”16px” color=”#999999″]During the Defense of Texas Marriage Amendment Rally on Mar. 23, 2015 at the Texas Capitol, a protester raises questions of marriage sanctity noting celebrities who’ve been married multiple times. / photo credit: Bob Daemmrich

[gdlr_notification icon=”icon-external-link” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#ffffff”]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/05/15/house-republicans-we-still-oppose-gay-marriage/[/gdlr_notification]

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84th TX Lege

In Gay Marriage Battle, the Clock Beats Cecil Bell

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When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, ruling it unconstitutional to deny federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia, found himself agreeing with Justice Anthony Kennedy‘s majority opinion.

Some might find that surprising, considering that the sophomore lawmaker from southeast Texas is leading the fight against allowing gay marriage in the Texas. But while many take from Kennedy’s opinion a strong indication that the high court will rule in favor of same-sex marriage again this summer, Bell — who loves to read the wonk-beloved judicial news site SCOTUSBlog — interprets it a little differently.

Instead of sanctioning gay marriage, Bell believes, Kennedy’s ruling was primarily an affirmation of states’ rights to regulate marriage. If he’s correct, the court’s forthcoming decision on gay marriage may not be as earthshaking as some believe, leaving it to states to decide what to allow within their borders.

“I think Justice Kennedy was very clear — it was his basis in fact for striking down DOMA — it was the fact that marriage wasn’t a federal purview,” Bell said. “Justice Kennedy said in Windsor that it is the sovereign power of the separate states and the people to define and regulate marriage.”

Asserting states’ sovereign rights has been the main drive behind Bell’s arguments this session as he has fought same-sex marriage.

Bills he has authored this session would do everything from taking the ability to issue marriage licenses away from county clerks to stripping salaries from local or state employees who issue same-sex marriage licenses.

Bell’s strongest bid fell short Thursday night when House Bill 4105, a bill that would have forbidden state or local governments from using public funds to issue same-sex marriage licenses, failed to pass the House before midnight — the deadline for House bills.

Enough Republicans had signed on as co-sponsors to guarantee the bill’s passage had it reached the floor, and Democrats spent Thursday prolonging debate in an attempt to run down the clock and prevent Bell’s legislation from being heard — a practice called “chubbing.” They were ultimately successful.

While the bill is now dead, Bell is not out of moves. He could still attempt to attach an amendment to a related Senate bill.

“From my perspective, no bill is dead as long as there are are other bills in front. You just have to find something that’s germane,” Bell said after passage of the House deadline spawned hope among opponents that the measure is done with for this session. “The session still moves on.”

Throughout the session, gay rights groups and legal scholars have criticized Bell’s bills as unconstitutional and outlandish.

“This end-run play to subvert a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, to which the state of Texas would be constitutionally bound, makes Texas a laughingstock and flies in the face of Texas values,” said Terri Burke, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Chuck Smith, director of gay rights group Equality Texas, said the group has worked with other lawmakers in attempts to soften the legislation, but views lobbying Bell as a lost cause.

“We have not proactively tried to change Rep. Bell’s mind — I think he has been quite clear on where he’s coming from,” Smith said.

In an interview Thursday morning before the House convened, Bell said he believed his legislation was not a partisan issue — but he acknowledged the criticism aimed at it.

“When it first came out in the news, I think people wanted to see this bill as targeting a subset of our population — and I think that’s where a lot of the animosity towards the bill comes from,” Bell said.

Before joining the House, Bell served as school board president in Magnolia, a town of about 1,500 in southeast Montgomery County. He tells people he is a sixth-generation Texan, and that his family roots in America date back to 1751. Bell is proud of his Texas roots — he is known around the Capitol for his ever-present cowboy hats.

“Hats have a reason, they’re not just there for decoration,” Bell said. “I didn’t start wearing a hat when I decided to run for political office — if you go back and look at the earliest pictures of me, I wore one not because someone put it on my head but because I wanted it.”

Bell’s mother served as a councilwoman and mayor of Oakwood, where Bell graduated as high school valedictorian. He has been self-employed since 1983 at a water and wastewater treatment facilities construction company. Today, he is the CEO of several other companies.

During his first session, Bell focused on legislation relating to dual credit classes in high school, reducing requirements for concealed handgun licenses and providing liability protection to volunteers who assist during disasters. In his second session, legislation related to gay marriage makes up a sizable portion of his legislative portfolio — though he has filed bills on local issues.

Bell said the issue is important to him not just because of religious reasons, but to assert the sovereign rights of Texas.

“My own beliefs are my own beliefs, and I am certainly willing to assert them,” Bell said. “But I recognize that we don’t live in a theocracy. So what we’re talking about here is the sovereign rights of the states.”

He is not moved by polls showing growing support for gay marriage. According to an October 2014 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 42 percent of Texans polled were in favor of gay marriage. Forty-seven percent were against.

“If you want a more precise indication of where people are, look at another set of polls — those are the results of our elections in Texas,” Bell said. “It is one thing to say what the polls say. It’s another thing to look at people’s conduct.”

Bell also argues that federal court rulings account for the majority of states where same-sex marriage is now legal.

In four same-sex marriage cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court — from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky — the court is expected to address whether the states must allow same-sex marriages, and if they must recognize same-sex marriages performed in another state.

Texas’ same-sex marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2014, but remains in effect while the case is before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Though Bell disagrees, many expect the Supreme Court to rule in favor of same-sex marriage this summer, which will likely have ramifications for any state with a gay marriage ban. Before the House convened on Thursday, Bell would not say what he thinks would happen if both the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage and his bill became law.

“That’s for itself to play out,” Bell said.

But when discussing his philosophy toward legislating, Bell said he believed in being proactive — not reactive.

“If we don’t deal with the big issues, we will be left with whatever emerges from those issues,” Bell said. “And I don’t believe in being constantly reactive. I believe in being proactive.”

[gdlr_icon type=”icon-camera-retro” size=”16px” color=”#999999″]State Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia, on the House floor on May 7, 2015. / photo credit: Todd Wiseman

[gdlr_notification icon=”icon-external-link” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#ffffff”]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/05/15/gay-marriage-fight-rep-bell-makes-proactive-strike/[/gdlr_notification]

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